Monday, January 23, 2012

Don't be evil

The word this morning is about a "don't be evil" bookmarklet, developed by engineers at Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace, that removes Google's hard-coded Google + social results from search and replaces them with the social links that Google's own algorithm recommends.

It's a brilliant satire of Google's specious claim that they feature Google + results only because they lack the data to show Twitter or Facebook results -- they have the data, and their own engine demonstrates that fact -- but there's another interesting twist to this story encapsulated in the phrase: "Don't be evil."

That was, of course, Google's original mission statement. The original idea was that Google would be a company apart, one focused more on the coolness of the product than on crushing, killing, and destroying a la Microsoft in its most monopolistic days. They conceived the vision and they put the statement out there, and now it's become self-parody. "Don't be evil" is a slogan that Google haters can throw in the face of today's Google, which is far more concerned with profit and market share than they are with being on their best behavior.

There's an interesting dynamic when you wear your values on your sleeve; if your company becomes prominent, that value statement enters the public domain. As your business matures you may feel that the values need to shift (or maybe it's more accurate to say that you'll stop caring so much about what seemed important when you were just starting out), but the value statement will not shift along with it. Eventually you can find yourself in the position of Google, acting in a way that seems to manifestly contradict its own value system.

So is it a mistake to put those values out there? To my knowledge, Microsoft never articulated a particularly idealistic vision for the company; they were about selling software, and there was nothing about the destruction of Netscape that was obviously in contradiction to that self-identity. Did Microsoft make things easier for itself by keeping its collective mouth shut?

It may be so, and it may be that Larry and Sergey rue the day when they looked into the future and saw no reason why their company should ever resemble Microsoft. (Or, more likely, they're too busy being billionaires to care.) But I would like more small companies to wear their values on their sleeves. When some of them become big companies, their board rooms will begin to be filled with M.B.A.'s and marketing consultants, and by then it may help to remember that they once thought that their company stood for something good, and pure, and honest.

Update: Sarah Lacy weighs in with a similar thought: "Quibbling and asterisks aren’t going to work, because Google is the one who made the unequivocal statements to begin with."